Often when travelling around South East Asia, I ask myself: where is the best place to the see Orangutan – the Jungle VIP? We all know lions are exclusive to Africa, tigers to Asia, wild pandas to China, gorillas to three countries in central Africa…but what about the true King of the Swingers, the orangutan?
Bukit Lawang, Sumatra
My first wild encounters with the orangutan was in Sumatra, Indonesia. Bukit Lawang, to be precise. I had always wanted to visit here since beginning my travels in South East Asia, but certain fears had held me back (snakes, bugs, mosquitoes…). When I plucked up the courage in 2014, it was a joyous experience. Whether you head to Bukit Lawang solo like I did, or as part of a larger group, you will be engrossed watching the Sumatran Orangutan in its natural habitat in the presence of official guides – you can even get up close and personal during feeding time!
Tanjung Puting, Kalimantan
For a more off the beaten path experience chasing these orange apes(!), consider the arduous journey to Tanjung Putting National Park in south Kalimantan, Indonesia. Flying first to Balikpapan, and then a short hop over to Pangkalun Bun, I was now at the doorstep of what many people call the true Home of the Bornean Orangutan. The wilderness of Kalimantan makes this a somewhat more authentic experience to see the orangutans in their natural habitat, seemingly less disturbed by tourists (like me) than their Sumatran cousins.
If heading into the dense jungle is not your thing, then perhaps the sanctuary at Sepilok is more appropriate (especially for families). Known more as a rehabilitation centre full of semi-wild orangutans, this location at Sepilok in Sandaken is perfect for understanding how these Bornean species interact with each other and their surroundings.
Kinabatangan River, Sabah
Although my experience on the mighty Kinabatangan did not produce any sightings of orangutans, I am reliably informed that amidst the proboscis monkeys, pygmy elephants, and crocodiles, you can spot orangutans on a good day. This perhaps is the most majestic of all the possibilities in Malaysia and Indonesia to see these amazing animals, due to the aquatic transportation involved (like a real river safari).